ALEKSANDAR STAMBOLIYSKI AND THE COUP D'ETAT
Author: Nedyu Nedev
Aleksandar Stamboliyski (1 March 1879 - 14 June 1923) was the prime minister of Bulgaria from 1919 until 1923. Stamboliyski was a member of the Agrarian Union, an agrarian peasant movement which was not allied to the monarchy, and edited their newspaper.
Opposed to the country's participation in the First World War and its support for the Central Powers, he was court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison in 1915. He was a supporter of the idea of a Balkan federation and identified not as a Bulgarian, but as a South Slav.
In 1918, with the defeat of Bulgaria in the war, Tsar Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his son Tsar Boris III who released Stamboliyski from prison. He joined the government in January 1919, and was appointed prime minister on 14 October of that year.
On 20 March 1920, the Agrarian Union won national elections and Stamboliyski was confirmed as prime minister. During his term in office, Stamboliyski took the unpopular measures of complying with the terms of Bulgaria's surrender.
Though popular with the peasants, this antagonized the middle class and military. Many considered him to be a virtual dictator. He was ousted in a military coup on 9 June 1923. He attempted to raise a rebellion against the new government, but was captured by the military, tortured and killed.
Early political career
Until the early 1900s, Bulgaria was primarily a land of small, independent peasant farmers. The Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, or BANU, emerged in 1899 due to grievances against the monarchial government in light of the low standard of living facing the agrarian peasants of Bulgaria. By 1911, as the leader of the BANU, Stamboliyski was the most notorious anti-monarchist and head of the opposition to Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria. Bulgaria was the first defeated state of the First World War, and the government regime, composed primarily of the state’s bourgeoisie members, tried to escape the national disgrace. It attempted to consolidate its domination by attracting into the administration the party with the largest membership — the BANU. On 25 September 1918, in order to gain the BANU’s acceptance, the regime was forced to release a number of political detainees, most notably Aleksandar Stamboliyski. The latter had been sentenced to life in prison after his meeting with Tsar Ferdinand to protest against war effort on 18 September 1915 — ultimately, two weeks before Bulgaria entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers.
When the regime released Stamboliyski from prison, it did so with the hope that he would contain the growing unrest within the army. Although it is unclear if he was willing, or even able, to quell the army, it is undisputable that, with the influence of fellow agrarian party activist Raiko Daskalov, Stamboliyski soon faced another arrest order from the crown after Bulgaria was declared a Republic for the people on 27 September 1918.
A rebellion, centered to the west of Sofia in the town of Radomir, was organized by Stamboliyski’s supporters and threatened to develop into a national revolution. However, the movement for a new, agrarian republic was quickly eliminated due to several factors and was left without the sufficient means to bring about the change it desired. Lasting from only 28 September until 2 October, the rebellion was very short-lived and led to many arrested and executions. Unlike many of his supporters, Stamboliyski was able to escape the fate of imprisonment or execution and instead went into hiding until he was to re-surface in the political arena during the reign of Tsar Boris III. The rebellion, however, could not be considered a total failure by the Agrarian Union as it was successful in eliminating the rule of Tsar Ferdinand, who fled Bulgaria by train on 3 October 1918 in the wake of Allied occupation. Ferdinand was to be succeeded by his son Boris III with the approval of the Allied Powers.
Ascension to power
After Tsar Boris III took the throne, the emerging political factions in Bulgaria were the Agrarians, the Socialists, and the Macedonian extremists. However, due to the loss of the territory of Macedonia immediately following Bulgaria’s surrender to the Allied forces, the Macedonian faction fell out of contention leaving the Agrarian and Communists factions struggling for political supremacy. As the general election of 1919 approached, Stamboliyski came out of hiding and won the election of prime minister of the new coalition cabinet. However, because the election was so close, Stamboliyski was forced to form a government coalition between the agrarians and the left-wing parliamentary parties. By March 1920, however, Stamboliyski was able to form a solely BANU government with another decisive election victory and a tactical manipulation of the parliamentary system. From his complete acquisition of power in March 1920, until his death on 14 June 1923, Stamboliyski ruled Bulgaria with a decisive force and caused many to remember him as a "virtual dictator".
Stamboliyski’s government immediately faced pressures from the left and right as well as national problems such as food shortages, general strikes, and a great flu epidemic. His goal was to transform the political, economic, and social structures of the state. He aimed at establishing the absolute rule of the peasant, which composed nearly three-fourths of the population of Bulgaria during his era. Part of his objective was to offer each member of the dominant group an equitable distribution of property and access to the cultural and welfare facilities in all villages. The BANU organizations were to play a vital role in linking the peasant economy to the national and international markets. Stamboliyski founded the BANU Orange Guard, a peasant army that both protected him and carried out his agrarian reforms. In foreign policy, Stamboliyski abided by the terms he helped set in the peace treaty signed at Neuilly-sur-Seine in November 1919. These were eventually exploited by the extreme right factions of Bulgaria as he failed to lessen the outstanding reparations payments until 1923. Stamboliyski rejected territorial expansion and aimed at forming a Balkan federation of agrarian states. His administration was successful in bringing out land redistribution legislation, creating maximum property holding regulations. It also increased the vocational element in education, especially in rural areas. However, Stamboliyski never settled the Macedonian problem and failed to maintain a strong standing army — which was one of the provisions of the Neuilly-sur-Seine treaty.
Coup d’état on 9 June 1923
On 9 June 1923, Stamboliyski’s government was overthrown by a coup composed of the right wing factions of the Military League, the National Alliance, and the army led by Aleksandar Tsankov. With the Communist faction refusing to intervene, Stamboliyski was taken prisoner in his native village of Slavovitsa, where he had fled following the coup d’état and was organizing a counter-insurgence that was large in number but weak in arms. He was tortured and executed by the army immediately following his arrest.
Seemingly successful in his political ambition of acquiring the highest political office of the state, the unstable political atmosphere of Bulgaria in the early inter-war years ultimately led to Stamboliyski’s demise.
Alexander Stamboliiski and the BAU
By its composition and ideology the BAU was a petty bourgeois party. Alexander Stamboliiski evolved the 'theory of estates', according to which society was divided into estates, and not into classes. The main estate was the 'peasantry' which was subject to the plundering of the 'townspeople'. Stamboliiski was aware of the fact that the peasantry was not a socially homogeneous mass, but he believed that it would seize political power through the peasants' estate organization and would perpetuate small-scale and middle-scale property through reforms.
After the World War, BAU became the most numerous party, and its influence predominated in the countryside. Its supporters were small and mainly middle peasants and comprised the basis of the left democratic wing in the party headed by Alexander Stamboliiski and Raiko Daskalov. The well-to-do peasants, though a minority in the party, had a considerable influence in the local party leading bodies. They formed the social basis of the right wing, which incited the BAU to unite with the bourgeoisie and oppose the Communist Party.
The heterogeneous social composition and petty bourgeois ideology of the BAU determined the vacillating, inconsistent and contradictory policies of the independent Agrarian Government. The BAU was an anti-monarchic and republican party. The international situation as well as the situation in Bulgaria in post-war Europe made it impossible to question the position of the monarchy, and this is why the Agrarian Government attempted at least to do away with the conditions favouring the existence of the personal regime. The Tsar was stripped of one of his most important prerogatives — the office of Commander-in-Chief of the army. This function was assumed by the Government. At the end of his rule Stamboliiski was preparing a new constitution under which the tsarist power was to remain purely representative.
The Agrarian Government sent out to completely discredit the bourgeois parties in order to frustrate their return to power. Legal proceedings were started against the Ministers of V. Radoslavov's Government, which had been in office during World War I. In 1922 a referendum was held to indict the Ministers of the Governments of I. E. Geshov, S. Danev and A. Malinov, which had held office during the Balkan War and at the end of World War I. Thus the bourgeois parties were deprived of leadership and their leaders were arrested and brought to court.
The Agrarian Government carried out a number of reforms which affected the interests of the bourgeoisie. Foreign trade in cereals and cereal products was taken away from the capitalists and put into the charge of a specially established state body — the Consortium. New systems of additional and graduated taxation of the capital and property of the bourgeoisie were introduced. A law was passed for the expropriation of big urban residential property for the needs of the State and society. Labour service was introduced for all citizens who had to work for a certain period on big construction sites such as railways, roads, etc. The Law of Land Ownership limited the ownership of arable land to thirty hectares. The expropriated and state land, put together, formed a state fund from which land was given away to the landless peasants and small holders. The reforms carried out by the Agrarian Government affected considerably, though only partially, the interests of big business.
The foreign policy of the Agrarian Government was peaceful, aiming to take the country out of international isolation. Bulgaria was admitted to the League of Nations. The endeavours of Stamboliiski's Government were aimed at a rapprochement with France and understanding with the neighbouring countries, the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenenian Kingdom in the first place, with which it signed the Nish agreement in 1923. The controversial issues between the two countries were settled mainly in favour of Yugoslavia. This caused the discontent of the leadership of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) whose right wing took the upper hand and entered into an alliance with the bourgeois reaction for a struggle against the agrarian regime.
An agreement was signed with the countries which had won the war for paying off Bulgaria's reparation debt. The Agrarian Government maintained friendly relations with Poland and Czechoslovakia, and made steps toward a rapprochement with Soviet Russia. Under the pressure of the Western States the Government allowed the White Guard of Baron Wrangel, expelled by the Red Army, to settle in Bulgaria, but at the same time it permitted the Russian Red Cross mission to organize the return of the White émigrés to Russia.
The bourgeoisie, having preserved its dominating position in the economy, regarded the continuation of BAU rule as a threat to its class domination and gradually launched a political offensive, in order to consolidate its forces. In 1922 all the bourgeois parties joined to form a reactionary political grouping named the Constitutional Bloc. However, the bourgeois parties did not have a broad social base. They did not believe that they would restore their power by parliamentary means and began preparations for a coup with the assistance of the army. The influence of Italian Fascism penetrated the bourgeois parties, and the reactionary army officers also took their side. The underground Military League was formed in 1919. Its legal front was the fascist organization Naroden Sgovor (Popular Alliance) formed in 1922. In the beginning of 1922 the bourgeoisie was about to launch a decisive offensive. Representatives of the Constitutional Bloc negotiated with the headquarters of Wrangel's army, which had all its equipment and military organization well preserved, on common actions against the agrarian regime. The conspiracy of the reaction was revealed by the BAU and the Government was forced to expel Wrangel's generals and partially disband the White Army. In the autumn of 1922 the parties of the bloc tried to organize 'rallies' against the BAU in different settlements, but this was frustrated by the unity of action between communists and agrarians.
In the parliamentary elections on 22 April 1923 the BAU won a considerable majority in the National Assembly. The Government made the wrong assessment that the bourgeois parties had been defeated and turned its blows against the BCP. The aggravated relations with the BCP facilitated the bourgeoisie in its conspiracy to seize power. The immediate organizers of the coup d'etat were the Military League and the Popular Alliance, but representatives of all bourgeois parties were involved in the conspiracy. On the night of 8-9 June 1923 the conspirators, supported by the monarch, carried out a coup d'etat in the capital. The Agrarian Ministers were arrested. The Tsar appointed a Fascist Government headed by Prof. Alexander Tsankov (1879-1959) comprising representatives of the Military League, the Popular Alliance, the Constitutional Bloc, the National Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party.
Scores of thousands of agrarians and communists rose spontaneously against the coup d'etat — in the district of Pazardjik under the leadership of Alexander Stamboliiski, and in the districts of Pleven, Tarnovo, Shumen, Varna, Karlovo and in many other regions of the country. In Pleven district the uprising took on a really mass and organized nature. More than 100,000 people rose in revolt across the country. In many places communists and agrarians acted in unity. However, although it disapproved of the coup d'etat, the Central Committee (CC) of the BCP, because of its doctrinaire attitude toward the BAU and its Government and because of lack of Marxist-Leninist maturity, took the mistaken stand of neutrality. The June 1923 anti-fascist uprising was brutally crushed, and on 14 June Alexander Stamboliiski was captured and murdered.
The coup d'etat was a crushing blow to the democratic movement in the country. It replaced the traditional bourgeois democracy by a reactionary dictatorship, a more efficient form of defense of the bourgeois domination under the new conditions. The Government of A. Tsankov (1923-25) revoked the gains of the working people while it had no sound social basis among the general masses.
Alexander Stambolijski and the Peasant State
In the Bulgarian case, the demand for democratic institutions and local autonomy had more to do with the agrarianism wish to conserve traditional social relationships. Western European democratic models were not neglected, but were instead openly criticized and adopted to the original vision of a peasant (corporatist) state, which was to grow perpetually to a peasant dictatorship of the Bulgarian statesman Alexander Stambolijski (1919-1923).
At least during the 1920s, agrarians favoured a so-called labour property, which was said to provide a golden third way between capitalist private properly and communist collective properly. Capitalism itself was given up as a promising way into a better future and similar to the Russian Narodniki agrarians tried to preserve an idealized peasant past, one which needed to be liberated from its aristocratic heads — the boyars. Agrarianism seemed to answer the age-old human desire to live unharmed by societal authorities.
The rejection of traditional leaders had an influential impact on political theory. It is correct that Bulgarian agrarians refused class fights and social violence. At the same time, they divided the citizens of their country strictly into “parasitizing” and “non-parasitizing” groups. Living together peacefully concerned only “productive” members of society. “Non-productive” people, who usually belonged to the urban elites, were said to live-off of the exploitation of the common people, and to have no right to participate in the countries’ political life. In order to avoid interethnic struggles ethnic minorities were granted rights of political and economic co-determination. Nevertheless, the corporatist model of a peasant state meant a segregation from traditional Bulgarian society as well.
Part of the difficulty of defining agrarianism might be explained by the very unusual concepts of Bulgarian theoreticians. Their strong connections with Russian agrarian socialism, the visionary character of their theories, and a rural form of nationalism were unique in regard to equivalent Baltic and Central European movements. Summarizing the differences, one could say that Bulgarian agrarianism was rooted in the rejection of the capitalist transformation. Because neither pure Marxism nor classical liberalism seemed to provide the country with a satisfactory answer concerning economic backwardness, agrarian scholars elaborated a very original development strategy which combined: a) Russian agrarian socialism; b) rural nationalism; c) economic theories of the Third Way; d) patriarchal social relations and e) utopia of a Peasant State.
In South Eastern Europe, radical agrarianism was rooted in delayed modernization processes. When classical liberalism ceased to be a promising way out of economic backwardness at the turn of the 19th century, agrarians offered an alternative development strategy, refusing industrialization in large parts of the region. The starting point of their visionary argumentation were the zadrugas described above. With the help of these peasant family units, the construction of an alternative societal model called Peasant Democracy would be possible. Its economy would be characterized by collective work, collective properly, and a rural democracy. Capitalist commerce, as the main cause of the exploitation of the peasant masses, would be regulated by a network of cooperatives, which would replace capitalism as a whole.
Agrarian radicalism was a left-wing revolutionary ideology, whose leading representative was the Bulgarian statesman Alexander Stambolijski. He carried out the first and only experiment to establish a “Peasant State” — the common vision of all Balkan agrarianism. A Prime Minister from 1919 to 1923, he even forbade weddings between peasants and urban dwellers, limited private landownership drastically, and tried to keep capitalism from influencing the Bulgarian national economy with the help of state monopolies and an intensive promotion of rural co-operatives. Cooperatives here should not be understood in the common sense of the word, but instead as the traditional Bulgarian zadrugas.
Stambolijski's almost total rejection of modernity was softened by mainstream agrarianism. This combined a romantic view of agriculture as the most moral and natural vocation with an image of the peasants as a socially undifferentiated class who should unconditionally take over the control of power. However, urban citizens were not excluded from political participation, and industrialization was not to be hindered, but should instead strictly correspond to the needs of the rural population. These agrarians were looking for a Third Way between liberalism and communism.
To a certain extent, the revival of the peasant state followed its earlier disintegration, because the remaining activists hoped to regain the peasants’ votes with its help. Already in 1926 the cooperative labour property, the core of a Third Way, had been excluded from the party program, and in 1935 BANU did not mention it explicitly. Now they just tried to replace the communist collective property with an “organized and rationalized private property”, but did not explain how such a rationalization would look. Anti-capitalism appeared as a term, but was no longer filled with content. Some theoreticians limited the Third Way to anti-communism, which was part of the fascist argumentation as well. In 1936 the Peasant State was finally reduced to nothing, when cooperative unions limited its purpose to the reconstruction of the national economy after the Great Depression. Not even the term Peasant Democracy seemed to survive the programmatic transformations. The theoretical weakness of the Peasant State resulted in the failure of the agrarians to create a democratic alternative, which alone could have stopped the fall of the country into a fascist dictatorship. The question remains as to why the peasants turned away from democracy. Some commentators believed the Peasant Party to be a victim of a fragile democracy. In their mind, agrarians failed to rapidly transform millions of rural peasants into self-conscious voters. In times when the rural electorate could not overcome its former passivity and refused to participate in the country’s politics, the defenders of democratic institutions could no longer withstand the authoritarian threat.
Pictures 1, 2 & 3: Sample illustrations on the text above.
(i). Alexander Stamboliyski in the Chancellor's cabinet 1919-1923.
(ii). Alexander Stamboliyski and Nikola Petrov aka. Nikola Petroff (cf., first bulgarian World Wrestling Champion).
(iii). Alexander Stamboliyski and Krastyo Rakovski meeting in Genoa 1922 (cf., the latter as leader of the Ukrainian Communists was persona non-grata on the Balkans).
Copyright © 2010 by the author.